Bird Watch: Locals participate in annual statewide Spring Bird Count

When Nick Barber was a young boy, he loved spotting birds near his family’s tiny cottage in the country.

In high school, he turned his love of birds into a hobby and attended birding and ornithology camps during the summer. In college, he turned it into his major. Now he studies and teaches about birds as part of his job.

Barber is an associate professor with the Northern Illinois University Department of Biological Sciences. As a professor at NIU, Barber teaches biology classes about birds, mammals, ecology and evolution.

On May 6, Barber participated in the annual statewide Spring Bird Count.

“That bird in your backyard can see parts of the world we might never see,” Barber said. “Counting birds one year doesn’t tell you much information. It’s when you have an organized count at a fixed time every year that you can see long-term trends.”

The SBC results are published in The Meadowlark, a journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society. The information also is added to the Illinois Natural History Survey’s database. The information can be used to estimate changes in populations of species of birds throughout the state.

“We divide up and go birding,” said Darrell Shambaugh of Somonauk. “We see what we can find while keeping track of species and individual birds.”

The SBC is held the Saturday that falls between May 4 and 10 each year. The censuses are conducted in all 102 counties in Illinois.

“The count is held statewide, showing us a snapshot of the birds’ migration pattern,” said Shambaugh, SBC organizer and compiler for DeKalb County. “Factors that could affect the bird count include weather and temperature. We usually never have the same numbers any two years.”

Since the SBC began in 1972, there has been an average 116 species spotted each year in DeKalb County. This year, the county’s six groups of counters saw about 125 species and about 5,800 birds. The highest count for any group was 76 species. In previous years, one or more groups have counted more than 100 species.

Shambaugh said that although the number of total species spotted was higher than average, there were instances of low numbers of families of birds.

“The warblers were quite low, only 16 species for the whole county, and no group with more than nine species,” Shambaugh said. “It’s not uncommon for two or three groups to find about 20 warbler species. We all expect to find at least 10 species, and we all hope for 20 species. The thrushes – the family of robins, bluebirds and catbirds – has eight species that are normally found in DeKalb County. We found only five, and besides American robins, they were in low numbers.”

Barber said he expected low numbers for the count because of consistent northern winds, a rainstorm in central Illinois overnight, and cooler than normal temperatures in early May.

“The count was slow for this time of year,” Barber said. “I’m seeing what you’d expect the last week of April, not the first week of May.”

Other counties in northern Illinois had similar results to DeKalb County’s, but central and southern Illinois saw more bird species because of warmer temperatures.

“I love that a bird’s migration pattern links us to other parts of the world,” Barber said. “For example, a warbler can winter in South America and nest in Canada. We can see the bird in a little forest preserve in DeKalb County as it stops and refuels. We are an important link in their journey.”

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